RSS Feed

The Asphalt Jungle (May 23, 1950)

The Asphalt Jungle
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Directed by John Huston
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I love heist stories. True or fictional, filmed or written; it doesn’t matter. Any tale of a well-planned robbery is catnip to me.

But like any connoisseur, I’m picky. Reading about real-life heists has made me dislike overly complicated fictional heists, like the wackiness on display in the Ocean’s Eleven films. Real-life heists — at least the ones that work — usually involve the smallest possible number of people, and the simplest possible method to get in and get out.

Heist films (and novels) invariably follow the same plot structure. It’s a story in three parts; the planning stages, the heist itself, and the aftermath. The heist itself can take many forms, and it’s always exciting to see a heist that’s creative and fresh, but the overall story is usually as rigidly structured as a haiku.

Sam Jaffe

I also love the heist film’s ability to implicitly or even explicitly comment on America’s capitalist economic system. A group of skilled professionals joining forces to expertly and efficiently make off with the biggest possible haul of cash or saleable goods has resonance in a society that values the almighty dollar over nearly anything else, and in which “legitimate” business endeavors often cross the line that separates the legal from the illegal.

This is addressed explicitly in The Asphalt Jungle. When May Emmerich (Dorothy Tree) says to her husband, Alonzo, “When I think of all those awful people you come in contact with — downright criminals — I get scared.” Emmerich calmly replies to his wife, “Oh, there’s nothing so different about them. After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.”

Louis Calhern

Emmerich is the “money man” behind the scheme in The Asphalt Jungle. He’s a wealthy attorney who is outwardly legitimate, but is privately bankrolling a heist led and planned by the recently paroled Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe).

In addition to Jaffe and Calhern, the main players in The Asphalt Jungle are Sterling Hayden as the ruthless career criminal Dix Handley, who provides the muscle on the job; Jean Hagen as “Doll,” Dix’s friend and potential love interest; Anthony Caruso as the safe-cracker, Louis Ciavelli; James Whitmore as the driver, Gus; veteran character actor Marc Lawrence as “Cobby,” the bookie who helps coordinate the heist; and of course the luminous Marilyn Monroe, who was just beginning her career in Hollywood, as Emmerich’s young mistress, Angela Phinlay.

Marilyn Monroe

Every actor in The Asphalt Jungle plays their part perfectly, which is one of the many reasons this is a film I never get tired of watching.

John Huston is at the top of his game here, and not just in terms of directing his actors. Huston and his cinematographer, Harold Rosson, created something that is really beautiful to look at. Nearly every shot in the film is a masterpiece of framing and lighting. Also, the decision to only use Miklós Rózsa’s score at the beginning and end of the film was a really smart decision. Film scores are often the single element that dates the worst, and even though I love Rózsa’s high-tension scores for noir classics like The Killers (1946) and Brute Force (1947), the absence of a score for most of its running time gives The Asphalt Jungle a sense of documentary realism.

The script for The Asphalt Jungle by Huston and Ben Maddow (based on the novel by W.R. Burnett), is great. It’s full of rich, quotable dialogue. The plot is tightly constructed, but complicated enough that more than one viewing of the film is necessary to see everything that’s going on.

The majority of the film was shot in Los Angeles, mostly in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, but it takes place somewhere in the Middle West. The opening shots of The Asphalt Jungle were filmed in Cincinnati, although the city in which the film takes place is never identified. All we know is that it’s a small city in the middle of the country that’s driving distance from Kentucky and is probably not Chicago.

Hagen and Hayden

The Asphalt Jungle is a groundbreaking heist film. There were plenty of movies about crime and criminals made in the first half of the 20th century, going all the way back to the short film The Great Train Robbery (1903), but The Asphalt Jungle changed the game.

The Killers (1946), White Heat (1949), and Gun Crazy (1950) all detailed well-planned robberies, but we really didn’t see much of the robberies themselves. The Asphalt Jungle depicts its heist from start to finish in ways that pushed the envelope of the Hays Code’s rules about depictions of criminal enterprise.

I’m not sure if we’ll see a heist this meticulously detailed again for a few years, until Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) (which also stars Sterling Hayden and takes a lot of cues from The Asphalt Jungle).

But The Asphalt Jungle is an important heist film not just because of its detailed depiction of a well-planned robbery. It’s an important heist film because its intricate plotting, well-drawn characters, and believable depiction of a professional criminal underworld created a template that is still being followed decades later in films like Thief (1981), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Heat (1995), and Inception (2010).

The Asphalt Jungle will be shown on Turner Classic Movies Wednesday, May 6, 2015, at 9:45 PM ET.

So Young, So Bad (May 20, 1950)

So Young, So Bad
So Young, So Bad (1950)
Directed by Bernard Vorhaus
United Artists

So Young, So Bad was released close on the heels of Caged, one of the greatest women-in-prison films ever made. It bears some striking similarities to Caged. So much so, that it made me wonder if the memo to Jack Warner from producer Jerry Wald about Virginia Kellogg’s 1948 story Women Without Men (the original concept that led to the film Caged) ever found its way out of the Warner Bros. offices and So Young, So Bad was conceived as a quickie cash-in. It’s not just the basic plot, either. Several details from Caged are repeated in So Young, So Bad, like pregnancy behind bars and a contraband pet whose death leads to a full-blown riot.

So Young, So Bad was directed by the soon-to-be-blacklisted Bernard Vorhaus with uncredited assistance from Edgar G. Ulmer, “the poet of Poverty Row,” who directed one of my favorite films of all time, Detour (1945).

Francis and Henreid

The most obvious difference between Caged and So Young, So Bad is that the former takes place in a women’s prison while the latter takes place in a reform school, the Elmview Corrective School for Girls. The other big difference is that Caged focuses on the female inmates’ experiences, while the main protagonist of So Young, So Bad is Dr. John H. Jason (Paul Henreid), a progressive man who fights against the inhuman punishments meted out at Elmview. Dr. Jason is strongly reminiscent of the reform-minded Dr. Kik in The Snake Pit (1948), which was about the primitive conditions in most mental institutions at the time of the film’s release.

I enjoyed So Young, So Bad, but it really pales in comparison with Caged, and not just because of its lower budget, more amateurish acting, and choppier pace. By focusing on Paul Henreid’s character, So Young, So Bad fails to do what Caged did so effectively; it fails to put the viewer in the shoes of the women behind bars who suffer barbaric treatment at the hands of their jailers. So Young, So Bad certainly shows us the cruel and unusual punishments handed down by the head matron, Mrs. Beuhler (Grace Coppin), but by focusing on Dr. Jason and his relationship with the sympathetic assistant superintendent Ruth Levering (Catherine McLeod), we are always kept at a distance from the young women in the reform school.

Rita Moreno

So Young, So Bad is probably most notable for featuring two talented and strikingly beautiful young actresses who would go on to much greater fame and success — Anne Francis and Rita Moreno. This was Moreno’s first role (she’s listed in the credits as Rosita Moreno), and Francis had only had uncredited film roles and parts on TV before So Young, So Bad. (I first noticed her on television in 1949 on the Suspense episode “Dr. Violet” with Hume Cronyn.) I thought that Moreno and Francis were the best parts of So Young, So Bad. It’s worth seeing for their performances alone. They were both very young and still finding their way as film actors, but they both have a magnetic quality that can’t be denied. The old cliché “you can’t take your eyes off them” certainly applies here.

There are also a few amazing moments in So Young, So Bad that stand out because most of the film is shot in such a straightforward fashion. It’s tempting to credit noir master Edgar G. Ulmer with these bits, or perhaps the cinematographer, Don Malkames, but who knows? Maybe Vorhaus had a few flashes of brilliance, like the decision to frame the shot of a girl who has committed suicide by hanging herself as a shadow below the shadow of a multi-framed window pane so it looks exactly like she is hanging from a spider’s web.

So Young, So Bad would make an interesting double-bill with Caged, but if you only have time to watch one, go with Caged.

Caged (May 19, 1950)

CagedCaged (1950)
Directed by John Cromwell
Warner Bros.

“Pile out, you tramps. It’s the end of the line.”

With those words we are plunged into the dark, unforgiving world of Caged, a masterpiece of the women-in-prison genre from director John Cromwell.

Caged is a tough, tragic, and intelligent film; it’s hell and gone from the cheap, lurid flicks that would define the women-in-prison genre during the exploitation heyday of the 1960s and ’70s.

Not only is Caged a great drama, it’s also a feminist film. Some of the prisoners in Caged are victims of abusive husbands, many of them were forced into a life of crime by their husbands or boyfriends, and all of them are subject to a justice system run by men. Even the woman with the most power in the film, the reform-minded warden Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead), has to answer to the governor and his officious underlings.

Like most prison movies, Caged focuses on a first-time offender, or “fish,” who’s new behind bars and has to learn the ropes. Her name is Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker), and she’s serving time for driving the getaway car for her young husband, who was killed during the commission of a robbery that netted a mere $40. “Five bucks less and it wouldn’t be a felony,” says the woman in the prison office who types up Marie Allen’s intake forms. (The arbitrary and sometimes brutally unfair nature of the criminal justice system is a theme that runs through the film.)

Eleanor Parker

Caged wasn’t the first movie to feature scenes in a women’s prison, but as far as I can tell, it was the first women-in-prison film to take place pretty much completely behind bars.

There were movies in the pre-code 1930s that featured scenes behind bars in women’s prisons. And about a year before Caged was released, Crane Wilbur’s The Story of Molly X (1949) proudly boasted that its prison sequences were filmed in a real women’s correctional facility. But the prison sequences in The Story of Molly X were a relatively small part of the whole film, and were the kind of violent and lurid exploitation most people normally think of when they hear the words “women in prison.”

Caged, on the other hand, is a great film with great performances. It’s a tragic story about a young woman who barely needed rehabilitation in the first place, and yet has everything systemically taken from her until she is a hardened criminal with nothing but criminality to look forward to when she’s released.

There are plenty of filmed women-in-prison stories that I’ve enjoyed, but I honestly can’t think of a smarter or more affecting one than Caged until the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black came around in 2013. However, I haven’t yet seen So Young So Bad, which was released in theaters one day after Caged. It’s the next film I’ll review, and we’ll see how it stacks up.

Caged will be shown on TCM Friday, February 20, 2015, at 1:30 PM (ET).

In a Lonely Place (May 17, 1950)

In a Lonely Place
In a Lonely Place (1950)
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Columbia Pictures

SPOILER ALERT. This review will discuss plot points of this film — and the novel it is based on — that you may not want to know if you haven’t already seen the film and read the novel.

This might come as a surprise to people used to films that slavishly adhere to the smallest details of the novels and comic books they’re adapted from (lest the filmmakers incur the wrath of throngs of nerds on the internet), but movies based on books used to be wildly different from their source material.

The phrase “the book was better” became a cliché for a lot of reasons, but one reason is that during the era of the Hays Code, novels could be much more explicit about sexuality, violence, race, gender, and other “grown-up” issues than Hollywood films could be.

There was probably no way Dorothy B. Hughes’s 1947 novel In a Lonely Place — which is about a man who stalks, rapes, and murders a series of women in postwar Los Angeles — was ever going to make it to the screen with its original plot intact. What’s interesting about Nicholas Ray’s film adaptation, however, is that it fundamentally changes the story while retaining the novel’s exploration of toxic masculinity.

In a Lonely Place 1947

Hughes’s novel is a third-person narrative that never leaves the perspective of Dixon Steele, a World War II veteran who is pretending to write a novel while receiving financial support from a rich uncle.

Dixon — “Dix” to his friends — sponges off a wealthy friend from college, Mel Terriss, who never appears in the novel and is supposedly out of the country. Dix lives in Mel’s apartment, wears his clothes, and charges purchases to his expense account.

One of Dix’s friends from his days in the service, Brub Nicolai, is now an LAPD detective investigating the murders that Dix is committing. Under the guise of “research,” Dix insinuates himself into Brub’s life and into Brub’s investigation. Dix was a pilot in the war, and he became addicted to the thrill of danger when flying missions. When he rides along with the police and returns to the scenes of his crimes, he learns what they know and what they don’t know, and he experiences rushes of adrenaline by pushing his luck.

Bogart

Andrew Solt’s screenplay, from an adaptation by Edmund H. North, retains most of the characters’ original names, but nearly everything else is different in some way. Instead of pretending to write a mystery novel as a cover, in the film version Dixon Steele is a successful screenwriter; or at least he used to be. Instead of being outwardly “normal” and utterly average-looking, the film’s Dix is distinctive-looking, well-known around Los Angeles, and has a police record for violence. Instead of a string of murders, Dixon is suspected of only one; the murder of a checkroom girl he took home one night to help him with a screenplay.

If the producers had been casting for a straight adaptation of the book, I think the perfect choice for Dixon Steele would have been Robert Montgomery, who starred in another adaptation of a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, Ride the Pink Horse (1947). Montgomery was the kind of guy who would be hard to pick out of a police line-up, but he had intense and haunted eyes. He also served in combat in World War II, just like Dixon Steele.

Bogart, on the other hand, is always “Bogie” no matter who he is playing. I don’t mean that he was ever typecast, just that his unique image and his star power were always bigger than the character, at least in the post-Casablanca era. This works for the film version of In a Lonely Place, since Dix is recognized all over Hollywood, mostly by people who dislike him.

Bogart and Grahame

In a Lonely Place is a masterful film from Nicholas Ray, a director who had already made a handful of impressive films in a relatively short career. The changes made to Hughes’s novel all work in the context of the film, since it’s not a film about a murderer, it’s a film about an angry and deeply unhappy man who is unable to control his rage.

In a Lonely Place works on two levels. If you go into it without knowing the ending, you’ll probably spend most of the film trying to guess whether or not Dix is guilty of murder. Bogart’s performance is perfect in this regard. His line “I’ve killed dozens of people … in pictures” rivals Bela Lugosi’s famous line from Dracula (1931), “I never drink … wine.”

Solt’s screenplay originally ended with Dixon — who is innocent of the murder he’s suspected of — strangling his girlfriend, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame). This is a trite conclusion that implies that police railroading “made him do it,” and it’s good that Ray shot a different ending.

What we’re left with is something much more profound. Unlike most Hollywood films, the love of a good woman doesn’t reform Dixon Steele. His rage and his refusal to confront his own propensity for violence drives her away. He is unwilling to confront his own demons, and it damns him to a lifetime alone.

Scandal (April 30, 1950)

Shubun
Scandal (1950)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Shochiku Company

I’ve been a fan of Akira Kurosawa’s films since I saw Ran (1985) on the big screen when I was 12 years old. Like most fans of Kurosawa, I came to his period samurai films first and slowly branched out into his contemporary dramas (like Ikiru) and his crime movies (like High and Low and Stray Dog).

One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about my OCD Viewing project is that it’s given me an excuse to finally sit down and watch some of Kurosawa’s lesser-known films that I might never have gotten around to watching otherwise, like No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) and The Quiet Duel (1949). Neither of those ranks among my favorite Kurosawa films, but I’m happy I saw them, and they gave me a better understanding of his body of work.

Scandal (Shûbun) is another one that didn’t appeal to me very much on paper, but really affected me when I watched it.

Mifune

Scandal stars Toshirô Mifune as a painter named Ichirô Aoye who strikes up an innocent friendship with a famous classical singer, Miyako Saijo (Shirley Yamaguchi), and suddenly finds his name and face splashed all over the tabloid press. His senses of righteousness and decency are both deeply aggrieved, and he proceeds to wage a quixotic war against Asai (Shin’ichi Himori), the sleazy editor of a periodical called Amour.

I love watching Mifune in just about anything, but the real surprise for me in Scandal was the performance of another Kurosawa mainstay, Takashi Shimura, as Hiruta, the lawyer Mifune employs to clear his name.

Hiruta is the most interesting character in the film, and he comes to dominate the film’s second half. Hiruta is a morally compromised character, but this is exactly what makes his story so good. Mifune’s anger is righteous and his character is admirable, but it’s Shimura’s complicated and bittersweet journey that makes Scandal such an affecting film.

Shimura

The year 1950 also saw the release of Rashômon, Kurosawa’s enduring masterpiece about the slippery nature of the truth. It premiered internationally at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, and introduced the world to Kurosawa’s greatness. So in a way, Scandal marks the end of Kurosawa’s early period. I don’t rate it as highly as Drunken Angel (1948) or Stray Dog (1949), but it’s still an excellent film.

Even an average film from Kurosawa is head and shoulders above most directors’ best work. Despite an overabundance of sentimentality and a reliance on a few too many shopworn melodramatic moments, Scandal is a satisfying film full of surprisingly beautiful moments, like an elegiac New Year’s Eve celebration or an average man’s final walk through a city street as just another anonymous human, despite everything we have just seen him go through.

D.O.A. (April 30, 1950)

D.O.A.
D.O.A. (1950)
Directed by Rudolph Maté
Cardinal Pictures / United Artists

The curse of high expectations strikes again.

Don’t get me wrong, D.O.A. is an excellent mystery that moves at a nice pace and has a great concept. But it’s been on my “must see” list since 1988, when the remake with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan came out, so maybe it was a foregone conclusion that I’d find it a little disappointing. The fact that it’s regularly cited as one of the all-time great film noirs probably didn’t help either.

D.O.A. stars Edmond O’Brien as a big lug with a wandering eye who never took life or love too seriously until the day he was fatally poisoned. Suddenly, his purpose in life becomes crystal clear. He has to solve his own murder before he dies.

O'Brien

The characters O’Brien plays, Frank Bigelow, is an accountant in the small town of Banning, California. He’s been carrying on an affair with his confidential secretary, Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton), but she seems much more serious about their future than he does. Bigelow tells her he’s pulling away from her because he doesn’t want to see her get hurt. When Bigelow suddenly has to travel up to San Francisco on business, she sees it as an opportunity for him to decide whether he’s serious about her or not. He sees it as a chance to paint the town red.

Bigelow goes out for a wild night on the town with a bunch of soused guys and gals who are in town for Market Week. He winds up at The Fisherman, a jumping jazz club where Bigelow doesn’t fit in with the “jive-crazy” patrons. (Neither does the bartender, who admits to Bigelow that he doesn’t “get it.” He’s a Guy Lombardo fan.) At the bar, a mysterious figure drops something in Bigelow’s bourbon and fades away into the night.

Sick to his stomach the next morning, Bigelow visits a doctor and finds out he has ingested a “luminous toxin,” a poison that attacks the organs. Bigelow only has a day or two to live … a week at the most.

O'Brien and Brand

D.O.A. is a well-made and entertaining B movie, and has lots of great footage of both San Francisco and Los Angeles, but I just can’t rate it as highly as the film noirs I consider masterpieces, like Detour (1945) and Out of the Past (1947). With those movies, there’s a sense of existential dread below the surface. They work on more than one level, I find myself coming back to them over and over, and they haunt my imagination.

I was expecting something similar with D.O.A., but O’Brien galumphs through the proceedings like a man with a hangover, angrily shaking down suspects and browbeating people for leads. After the poisoning, the film moves at a nice clip, but I never got the sense that Frank Bigelow was a man who was truly facing death. I also found the supporting characters mostly uninteresting, and Bigelow’s verbal exchanges with them were too often just information dumps.

I watched D.O.A. twice, but I still can’t really keep any of the supporting characters straight. The only person who really stands out for me is Neville Brand as Chester, a sadistic henchman who refers to himself in the third person.

After I watched D.O.A., I thought back to another B noir that starred Edmond O’Brien, The Web (1947). D.O.A. is considered an all-time classic, and every fan of film noirs has heard of it. The Web, on the other hand, seems mostly forgotten. But The Web has a better villain (Vincent Price), a much more interesting female lead (Ella Raines), and dialogue that is much more clever and entertaining than the dialogue in D.O.A.

So why is D.O.A. so highly regarded, while The Web is a movie no one remembers? I really think it comes down to the fact that D.O.A. has a crackerjack concept. The beginning and end of the film are incredibly strong, but I just didn’t find the film as a whole to be all that it’s cracked up to be.

Wagon Master (April 19, 1950)

Wagon Master

Wagon Master (1950)
Directed by John Ford
Argosy Pictures / RKO Radio Pictures

I have mixed feelings about John Ford.

I absolutely love some of his films, and consider them masterpieces, but he also made a lot of films that I’m not crazy about even though every other classic film fan seems to revere them, like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).

After watching Wagon Master, which was the western that Ford directed after She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, I’m beginning to think that my expectations might play some role. (In between these two westerns, Ford directed the comedy When Willie Comes Marching Home, which I haven’t seen.)

High expectations and the reverence of others can sometimes make a film tough to enjoy. I thought that She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was stunningly photographed, and I liked some of the performances, but overall I found it poorly paced, historically inaccurate, and unbearably sentimental. I also really didn’t like John Wayne’s performance. I love it when the Duke plays variations on himself, but whenever he plays a “character” I find it hard to watch. His role as Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon isn’t as bad as when he played Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956), but I still found his “old man” schtick disingenuous and poorly acted.

Johnson and Bond

Wagon Master, on the other hand, is a film almost no one ever talks about. When I sat down to watch it, I had no expectations, nor anyone else’s reverence to contend with.

I really enjoyed it. I thought it was a poetic and leisurely paced western that I’d love to see again some day. Unlike Ford’s last two westerns, which were both shot in Technicolor, Wagon Master is shot in black and white. (At least until the 1960s, I think I prefer my westerns in black and white.)

In Wagon Master, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr., who both had supporting roles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, play a pair of horse traders named Travis and Sandy.

They’re approached by a group of Mormons who are led by a recent convert to the faith, Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond), whose constant struggle to not use profanity is a running joke in the film. The group of Mormons are heading west through desolate stretches and need experienced range riders like Travis and Sandy to guide them. The Mormons plan to found a settlement and begin growing crops so a much larger group of their brethren will be able to join them in their promised land a year later.

The range is full of dangers, including human ones, who come in the form of the murderous Clegg gang. They’re led by Uncle Shiloh Clegg (Charles Kemper). If you pay close attention you’ll spot future Gunsmoke star James Arness as another member of the gang, Floyd Clegg.

Kemper and Arness

The Clegg gang is menacing, but there are also friendly strangers who join the wagon train along their journey — a drunken snake-oil salesman named Dr. A. Locksley Hall (Alan Mowbray) and his two female companions, Fleuretty Phyffe (Ruth Clifford) and Denver (Joanne Dru).

Perhaps if I were to proclaim Wagon Master a masterpiece, it would collapse under the weight of my approbation. But I thoroughly enjoyed it, and thought it was a beautifully made film that unfolds at a perfect pace.

I especially enjoyed seeing Ben Johnson come into his own as an actor. The Oklahoma-born Johnson was a ranch hand and rodeo rider in real life, and he’s convincing and charismatic in this role. I liked his supporting role in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, but he carries the film here, and emerges as a great western star. He has no false bravado or unrealistic heroics, and even decides against pulling his gun at several times when the audience might expect him to.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 456 other followers